For last more than two decades, it is quite normal in Kashmir to have an encounter, a gun battle between fugitives from law and state’s counter-insurgency grid. But, what it sometimes means to the non-combatants caught in between, Zubair Sofi’s report from ground zero
On November 11, 1999, a group of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) militants, chased by SOG, BSF and CRPF took shelter inside Ghulam Nabi Sofi’s single storey mud-and-brick house in Panzipora Khoie village, 18 km from Baramulla.
Sofi, 55, was sipping morning tea in his small kitchen, with his wife, two sons, and his slain son’s four-year-old daughter Tasfeeda.
A loud bang on the tin-sheets boundary fencing alerted Sofi’s. His wife Asha Begum, then 47, without losing a moment, rushed out to check.
In her courtyard, she found herself face-to-face with militant, armed to teeth, desperately seeking a place to hide.
Before she could have reacted, two more militants crashed in. “They were six in numbers,” recalls Asha, who looks older than her actual age now.
The first militant who led the group in told an indecisive Asha to get inside quickly as they are evading a chase. “I came running inside and told my husband what I saw,” said Asha.
Reflexively, Sofi ordered Asha and his sons to get out of the house, as he feared the worst.
“I took Tasfeeda and ran out of the house, into the alley, towards a nearby ground,” recalls Asha.
Sofi’s elder son Mushtaq, then 26, followed his mother and managed to flee before army stormed in.
However, her husband and youngest son Mohammad Shafi, then 22, couldn’t make out in that spur of the moment.
Fleeing, Asha remembers hearing a loud bang. It was a grenade, lobbed by militants that allegedly killed six BSF men. “Soon after, the BSF started firing towards the house,” recalls Asha.
There was no end to the exchange of fire for a couple of hours, as militants retaliated. They all were heavily armed.
Enraged by causalities, BSF set afire the houses surrounding Sofi’s abode.
As people started running for their lives, BSF men fired at them too, killing two brothers: Khursheed Ahmad and Mohammad Ashraf, sons of Abdul Gani Sofi. Heavy fire exchange prevented villagers from coming closer to the spot.
“They let nobody come near the bodies,” recalls Asha.
“We tried to keep ourselves away from the spot because it was unsafe.” They were, however, restless because their family members were still in. In desperation, they were trying to find gaps and see what happened to their house but it was shrouded in smoke.
After seven hours long gun battle, the encounter came to a close: two militants and four civilians were consumed by it. Nobody had any idea about the four other militants who managed their escape good.
“While entering back into my home I found my father holding my brother in his arms and lying on the floor,” recalls Mushtaq.
“Mushtaq and I came near to them and started waking them up,” Asha said. “I found blood on my husband’s chest and my son was not responding either.”
For Asha, it was unbearably tormenting to see her husband and son dead. “My mother fainted quickly,” Mushtaq said.
After she regained her conscious, she was not same again. Asha couldn’t see with her left eye. Even her right eye had ‘dusty vision’.
“I was unable to see and the left side of my chest was paining,” Asha said. “Later doctors declared it as severe heart disease.”
Two dead bodies clung to each other in a literal embrace was no less shocking for Mushtaq either. Within minutes after watching his father and brother drenched in blood and in eternal silence, he started exhibiting a problem in his head.
It pushed his memory to 1996 when his elder brother was killed. He had joined militancy for two years and was eventually killed. “The only reason for him to take up arms was the harassment we faced at the hands of Ikhwanis,” recalls Mustaq.
“The subsequent two years after my brothers killing are literally erased from my memory.”
Burial and mourning apart, the problems didn’t end with the killings. All the four civilians were declared as militants by the police in the FIR No 477/99.
“It was baseless but no one was left who could fight it out,” said Asha. The last hope was Mushtaq but the shock had taken him closer to insanity. “He used to spend most of the time at the graveyard, at the graves of my sons and husband. He used to cry and keep their photographs close to his chest.”
Seriously unwell, Asha had no resources to cure herself and her son. “I started to beg to raise some money,” Asha said. For two years he was on medication, not knowing where from it was coming.
“I have no words to explain my mother,” Mushtaq said. “I feel extraordinary to have a mother like her.”
Losing two grown up sons is not easy. Gani and his wife Jana Begum (45), faced nervous breakdown. There was no one left in the family except their daughter Esha (38). She was living her life with her family in Hajin.
“I was informed about the incident by our neighbour who owned a landline connection,” Esha said. “This news exploded me into pieces. As I arrived crying, nothing was left behind, everything was turned into ashes.” There was neither a bread for kids to eat nor a cloth to wear.
“As one of our neighbours gave us shelter to live, the locality went from village to village and collected clothes and utensils; and some money.” a pained Esha recalls.
By 2002, Mushtaq was normal and started understanding things. It was paining for him that his father, brother and his two neighbours were prefixed by word “terrorist” in police records. Restless, he petitioned State Human Right Commission (SHRC) seeking re-investigation. As he continued fighting the case, his mother encouraged him to start his own family. He married. In Arifa, his wife, he found a perfect match – a person who would be extremely caring when he underwent frequents fits.
For four years, Mushtaq fought for justice. “In 2006 after re-investigating the case keenly SHRC declared all the four slain as civilians,” Mushtaq said.“Judgement couldn’t bring them back but my father’s innocence was proved, so was of others.”
By then, Esha had lost her melancholic parents. Already after her two brothers killing, she had migratedto her parents’ house with her husband Ghulam Mustafa Mir and their children.
Even Esha’s survival was nor normal. “I began suffering from the various heart problems,” laments Esha. “It kills me inside when I start thinking about what happened to my family, my home. There is no one left now who will listen to my worries.”
But crisis throws up its own support.
Now Mushtaq always visits her. He treats her as his sister. “Mushtaq is not only my brother, he is a hero,” Esha said. “He was the only man who stood against injustice, fought and won for all of us.”
Mushtaq still shuttling between a small piece of land and the market and works as a labourer to make the life of his family better. He has adopted Tasfeeda, his slain militant brother’s daughter who is now graduating in arts. Tasfeeda’s mother opted for another marriage, leaving behind her daughter at the mercy of her in-laws. Mushtaq came forward to own her neice and wants her to dream his slain father’s life without telling her the circumstances in which he was mowed down.